My Sincerest Thanks to You All

Tomorrow night, I will be on my way to the airport in Dakar to return home to the US. I am truly shocked, in hindsight, by how quickly the time has gone by and cannot believe that I am already at the end of my volunteer service with Tostan. This past year has been filled with many highs and, as with any experience, some lows as well. There were many days where I wanted nothing more than to quit and go home, but I am happy to have stuck it out and am proud of the work I have accomplished here in West Africa.

This work, however, would have been completely impossible without all the support I have received along the way. A little more than a year ago, I opened a fundraising initiative to see if people would be interested in learning about what I would be doing here in Senegambia and in making donations to my time as a volunteer with Tostan. I will admit that I was skeptical of what the reaction would be, but tried my best to remain positive. I was blown away by the initial response—over $500 was raised in the first couple days alone. As the days, weeks, and months continued, over $1,600 was raised by many friends and family members. I am humbled by these people’s generosity and hope they can understand the role their kindness has played in this experience.

I have also been supported in other ways by so many amazing people in my life, whether it be care packages, letters and emails, or comments on posts. You guys have all kept me grounded and reminded me of all the love and support I have at home and around the world!

I have grown both as an individual and as a young professional throughout these experiences here in Senegal and The Gambia. I have met some of the kindest and most amazing people with whom I have shared adventures I will cherish for a lifetime. I am eager and anxious for the next chapter in my life and as I know what that is I will be sure to let you know! As I said, I will be heading home to Massachusetts this week—just in time to celebrate my little brother’s high school graduation—and I am very much looking forward to reconnecting with friends and family. As my future plans continue to unveil themselves–hopefully sooner rather than later!–I will continue to remember all that I learned here in Senegambia.

I thank you again for the love and support—both financial and otherwise. I hope someday to be able to show similar kindness and generosity! Thank you to those who have kept up with this blog I created while stressfully preparing for my journey last May. I hope you enjoyed the many glimpses into the amazing work Tostan does and the many, many staff members who make the organization so special.

My sincerest thanks to you all,

Thank You!

Thank You!

Vomiting and Dancing Through My Last Few Weeks

Heyo, everybody! I hope you are all doing well wherever you may be. I cannot believe it, but I am at the start of my last week here in Senegambia! I leave The Gambia on Saturday morning, at which time I will be making my way up through Senegal. I will spend a couple days in Thiès, where I lived all last year, before arriving in Dakar on Monday afternoon. I have my end-of-service interview on Tuesday in our office in Dakar and leave early Wednesday morning for the airport! It really has not hit me how soon I will be home, partially because the last three weeks have involved lots of travel and work.

Earlier this month, our Volunteer Coordinator organized a two-day long meeting / workshop in Dakar for the volunteers as a way to share experiences in an effort to improve the overall experience. I made my way up to Dakar the Friday before to take advantage of the weekend in the city to see friends I had not seen since last December. To get from Basse to Dakar, I woke up at 4:45AM and did not arrive at my final destination until after 5:30PM, which was still so much earlier than I had expected! I got very lucky at the two river crossings and at all the car parks I had to go to—very little waiting required!

The volunteer workshop went very well, and it was so nice to see friends I had not seen all year and to meet the new volunteers who had arrived in January. We got to exchange stories and give presentations on projects we work on in our respective offices. Molly Melching, Tostan’s founder, took the opportunity to sit and chat with us too. A book written about her work in Senegal comes out today—However Long the Night—sponsored by the Skoll Foundation. You should definitely check it out if you’re interested. I am looking forward to reading it myself!

Early-morning Breakfast at the Dakar Volunteer House!
(Note the Sweatshirt I’m Wearing!)

As nice as it was to be in Dakar, with all its cold air and amenities, I was eager to return to The Gambia and left Dakar on Wednesday morning again at 4:30. I traveled directly to our office in Kololi along the Atlantic Coast. I arrived at the ferry crossing in Barra at noontime, but did not step foot in Banjul, across the river, until almost 5PM…! The notorious Banjul-Barra Ferry gets me again … but I can take solace in knowing I will not have to cross it again!

I spent two days in Kombo before hitching a ride on Friday with a Tostan car—hallelujah!—back upriver to Basse. We left almost immediately for Boro Dampha Kunda, a Mandinka community in the Upper River Region. Tostan organized an Interzonal meeting bringing together about half of our thirty-three current Mandinka participatory communities in order to spread the word about the public declaration against FGC and early/forced marriage to be organized later this summer. During the ceremony, the village alkalo, or chief, presented me with a yoro, a necklace made out of biscuits and mints!

After Receiving the Yoro from the Village Alkalo of Boro Dampha Kunda

A couple days later, once back in Basse, I accompanied a coworker, Demba, who supervises microfinance grants in twenty of our Fula communities to Sare Fodigey, a community about an hour away across the River Gambia. They invited Demba to come attend their set setal, a village-wide cleaning day organized monthly. Demba also conducted interviews with different village leaders which will be used during Tostan extremely popular radio program. The women of Sare Fodigey especially were so active in their community and were so eager to share their story over the radio.

With Demba at the Cleaning Activity

With Demba at the Cleaning Activity

Coming back from this field visit, I unfortunately came down with severe food poisoning this past Friday. For a better idea of what this was like, check out the following (poor quality) clip:

I had a miserable 24 hours that involved no sleep, a situation not remedied by the fact that the power was out for all of it, BUT, I am on the mend and can thank Pedialyte for saving me from severe dehydration!

Following that little bump in the road, this past weekend we traveled to Demba Kunda, a Serahule community where my two bosses organized a pedagogical meeting with all the Tostan class facilitators from the forty Serahule centers. Demba Kunda put on a show for us upon our arrival and we made sure to follow all the “protocols” by going around the community and watching people sing and dance at all the stops. The Serahules, also known as the Soninké, are one of the smaller ethnic groups in Senegambia, but are a very proud, yet stubborn people, as it has been explained to me. They are reluctant to some of Tostan’s approaches at first, but usually become some of our most vocal supporters. At the meeting, we discussed with class facilitator the need to keep accurate class records to assist in the donor reports I write so as to better support future expansions of the projects. Facilitators were also able to provide feedback and other suggestions.

All of the Serahule Community Facilitators and Supervisors

All of the Serahule Community Facilitators and Supervisors

We arrived back in Basse on Sunday and left right away on Monday for Kemambugu to hold the same kind of meeting with our Mandinka class facilitators. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the hosting community was actually a majority Bambara village, whose language and history I am very much interested in. Related to the Mandinka, the Bambara are rare here in The Gambia and many can speak Mandinka in addition to their own language. Because of a flat tire along the way, we arrived after sunset, but before the moon had appeared in the sky. It was DARK and the stars were UNBELIEVABLE! Despite this lack of light, the people of Kemambugu met us with the most intense celebration I have ever seen here in Senegambia! The singing and dancing were amazing and people were swinging lanterns and flashlights around creating a strobe light-like atmosphere.

Bambara Dance Circle

Bambara Dance Circle

The night before any event Tostan organizes in village, a “cultural program” is organized during which the community can come together to sing and dance to local music. I can’t explain in words how dancing here works and none of the videos I’ve taken can be uploaded, but suffice to say it is very different from any dancing I know. Women and men crouch a little and frantically stomp their feet to the beat of the drum, all while throwing their hands in the air. It sounds weird, but looks really cool, especially because their clothes are so colorful and are whipped around. During both shows this week, people kept calling “Samba” to the circle to dance, which I tried politely to refuse. Unable to ignore them any longer, I gave the people what they wanted and allowed myself to be thrust into the circle and danced to the music as best I could. To get a better idea of what this looked like, I defer to Elaine Benes:

The people loved it and many women threw their scarves and head wraps at my feet, a sign of their support. I assumed they were just poking fun at me, but throughout my time in both communities, people kept coming up to me saying how much they appreciated my involvement in the program. And I am sure there were a few who thought it was the funniest thing, but, I am not bothered, it did look pretty silly!

Scattered throughout these field visits, I’ve also been busy at the office working on two assignments I just submitted to Dakar in addition to designing a story for the Orchid Project, who provide materials to Tostan The Gambia. I have also been preparing for the new volunteer’s arrival in a few weeks, so that she will be able to pick up right where I left off. Needless to say it has been very busy! But I am so thankful that we had these events this week as they have given me the opportunity to see all of our field staff one last time before my departure.

In case you were unaware, today is May Day, or International Labor Day. There are lots of races and other sporting activities going on in town. I had never heard of this international holiday before until today, but it is very popular here in The Gambia.

Stay well!

The Good with the Bad

A month and a half ago, I scheduled my end-of-service meeting with our volunteer coordinator in Dakar and started to plan for my return to the US. I cannot believe it, but, in a short, couple weeks, I will be ending my time with Tostan and will be heading home! While I am very, very excited to be heading back to the US and seeing my friends and family, as my departure date approaches, however, I have begun to get anxious about leaving. I have called Senegal and The Gambia “home” for almost a full year and have been working at Tostan for just as long. Soon, I will be packing up my big duffle bag and saying goodbye to this place and to the people with whom I have shared many unique memories. Not knowing when, or even if, I will ever be back makes this whole process all the more difficult.

This all being said, I have begun internally to process my time here in Senegal and The Gambia. I came up with a list of ten things I will definitely miss about this place … and, of course, ten things I will most certainly be sad to be leaving. Neither grouping is any particular order; they are just listed as I thought of them. Let’s start with the negative so as to end on a positive note!

10 Things I Will NOT Miss About Senegal and The Gambia

1.) Blackouts and Water Shortages in Basse! I am still surprised how much the power problems in Basse affected me. During the 25+ day blackout in February and March, I really was at a low point in my time here. As bad as the power is, most people I have talked to agree that the water outages are by far the worse of the two evils. When the power is out, you can adapt with flashlights, candles, and planning ahead. When the water is out, you cannot bathe, shower, or wash clothes and dishes. Fortunately, the water outages are a bit less infrequent than the blackouts here in Basse … fortunately.

2.) Public Transportation of Any Kind! I have ranted about this before, so I won’t get into it again. Suffice to say, I am very much looking forward to my last sept-places ride in a few weeks!

Me and My Ride

3.) Toubab! Unlike most of my other non-African friends, I am not bothered too much by the word “toubab” itself or the attitude it connotes. What does bother me, however, is that I am addressed as “Toubab” and not as “Sir” or “Monsieur”. I understand that by using toubab, it limits the pool of people who a person could be referencing, but when a Senegambian speaks to another Senegambian, he doesn’t address him as “black man” or “Senegambian”. There is some hope, however! I was in Boro Dampha Kunda this weekend and one father explained to his son, who had just screamed toubab at me, that my name was Samba and that I should be referred to by name … I could not believe this!

4.) Defending America. A friend of mine, Eve, who is in the Peace Corps in South Africa recently posted something about how being away from America has made her more patriotic, and this honestly could not be truer. Having seen how it is in other places, I appreciate all the more so many aspects of the United States and the American culture. Now, the United States is far from a perfect place—we can all agree—but it does get a lot of things right. This being said, I am pretty tired of being the unofficial spokesperson for the American Government in Senegambia. No, I do not agree with everything my Government does, and its actions do not reflect on me as an individual. I think that Gambians, unable to criticize their own government, more than make up for it in their criticism of America’s.

5.) Sleeping at Night. This is a sad one: I do not look forward to sleeping here, no matter how tired I am. My mat is uncomfortable; the heat is unbearable (especially in Basse, where there is no power at night for a fan); and the various wildlife activity at night still unnerves me.

6.) Change! Do me a favor: Take out your wallet, kiss your debit card, and tell it how much you appreciate it! In a cash economy, where change is a hot commodity, I am constantly aware of what bills I have in my pocket and planning purchases based off which shops or stalls will have change. 100 Dalasi ($3+) and 10.000 CFA ($20) bills, the largest denominations in The Gambia and Senegal respectively, are horrible, horrible things and should be avoided at all costs.

7.) “African Time” If you ever hear a Senegambian say to you “I’ll be there in fifteen minutes”, you know two things: 1.) He is lying; and 2.) He will most certainly NOT be there in anything close to fifteen minutes. You roll with the punches and you get used to this, I guess …

8.) Sweating and THE HEAT. I do have to say I have adjusted to the heat much more than I expected to, but there is only so much one can do when it is 115+ degrees outside … I really, really dislike sweating, especially when it shows through your clothing. The only time I am not sweating on any given day is when I am bathing, and, even then, on some days, I sweat during that too. Yes, it gets hot in America, but, in America, we have air conditioned buildings, houses, and cars … and things called “breezes”. 

9.) Slow / Non-existent Internet. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Have you seen that new Youtube video or that Buzzfeed article? No, no I have not …

10.) Mbalax Music. Mbalax music is a fusion of modern hip-hop with Senegambian traditional music. I associate it most closely with the sabar drum. I thought I liked this when I first heard in my Wolof classes at BU, but I was wrong. I do not like the rhythm and find the drumming annoying. When you go out dancing in Dakar, beware of “Mbalax Hour”, the hour each night when they play nothing but mbalax music …

10 Things I Will Miss About Senegal and The Gambia

1.) Running after Work: Yes, I know I can run after work no matter where I am, but here in The Gambia, I run through past the two closest villages outside of Basse that lead up to Senegal. At one stretch, I run alongside open fields as the cattle herds are being led back. The cows kick up so much dirt that it looks as if fog is descending on the earth. If I time it correctly, I arrive just as the sun is setting, and, man, it is so beautiful! A huge orange fireball in the air, purples and blues throughout the sky, all seen through the dust clouds kicked up by the cattle and through the wrinkly baobab trees that dot the landscape.

This photo does not do it justice …

2.) Speaking Many Different Languages in One Day. One day last week, I woke up in our office in Kombo and chatted in Wolof with the cook in our office while we ate breakfast. I then attended a meeting in French with a visitor from Senegal, and then conversed about Mauritanian sociolinguistics with another visitor in Arabic. I went back to my desk and finished a report in English and sent it to our Grants Officer in Dakar in an email I wrote in Dutch, something I’ve been learning lately. Anyone who knows me will know how awesome I find this! I really hope in my next job I am able to practice other languages as often as I am here in Senegambia.

3.) Unpredictability. As much as the lack of communication may bother me, I usually do love the resulting unpredictability. One day I may end up doing site visits on the North Bank of River Gambia, while the next, I could be on my way to a wedding or a naming ceremony. Just roll with it and have an easy going attitude and you’ll be fine!

4.) Mango Minties! In The Gambia, they sell these mango hard candies called “Melouky”, although everyone refers to them as Mango Minties. They. Are. Amazing. It could just be because they sell nothing else sweet in Basse, but that can’t be it!

5.) My Coworkers. This is by far the easiest one to add to this list. My coworkers are simply phenomenal. I have shared so many amazing moments with them. They have graciously invited me into their homes for holidays and special family events. It is so comforting to know that so many people are constantly looking out for you and are so eager to work with you. I dread my last day at the office here in Basse because I will miss these people so much.

With some coworkers in Boro Dampha Kunda

6.) Fieldwork! One of the reasons I requested a change from my position in Senegal was because of my wanting to gain experience in the field. Here in The Gambia, I have been able to complete much more fieldwork and attend more events in the field. This has been the most rewarding aspect of my professional experience here in West Africa, and I am confident this will benefit me in the future.

7.) My Fellow Volunteers! Tostan is fortunate to have such a great cast of characters that make up its Volunteer Program. These people have been my support group this entire time for when I need I break from Senegambia. I am happy to be leaving here having made some strong friendships and am so eager to see what successes and adventures the others will have in the years to come!

With Kelsey and Meagan, two volunteers I started with last June

8.) Down time. Since there is, in actuality, less to do here in Basse (and even less so when the power is out), I have a lot more time on my hands when I am not working. This allows me more time to sit and chat with people, run, read, study languages, and watch movies. While I am definitely more of a “hustle and bustle” kind of guy, I will miss this slower pace of life.

9.) The Tostan Approach. This is a bit difficult to explain: For the past year, I have been working so closely with Tostan’s programs through monitoring and evaluation, donor reports, and site visits. I have such a firm grasp on Tostan programs, the active projects in The Gambia, and how things work in this organization. Simply put: I know what I am doing here and having to start all over somewhere new will be a challenging adjustment.

10.) Ceeb … Ceeb is the Wolof word for rice, and, in my mind, refers to the rice varieties found in Senegambian dishes. I eat rice—honestly—every single day I am here, usually more than once a day at that! I am over rice … or so I thought. I was in Dakar last week for a meeting and made a point not to eat rice the entire weekend I was there. On Sunday, while walking along the road, my friends and I smelt ceeb being cooked and I blurted out that I wanted some. So, I guess I will miss Senegambian food after all …!

I have a really busy next couple of weeks before I head back to Dakar to return to the US! Be on the lookout for one or two more posts before I head home. I hope all of you back home are doing well, especially all my friends and family in Boston! I hope things are starting to return to normal there!

Miss you all and see you soon!

March and April Updates!

Hi everyone! I hope all is well wherever you may be! It is getting HOT here in Basse. One of the Peace Corps Volunteers in the region reported 114 on her thermometer the other day … The heat is actually quite indescribable, and I can’t remember when the last time I was not sweating profusely. The heat aside, there has been lots going on here in The Gambia! I just finished two posts, one about the multilingual work environment here in Senegambia and then another on hospitality and food, so feel free to check those out if you’re interested!

On the work front, things are going very well, very busy, but very well! A couple weeks ago, Tostan organized an interzonal meeting with all of our Mandinka participatory communities. The meeting took place in Kantele Kunda, one of the easternmost villages in The Gambia. Tostan class participants spoke about their experiences with Tostan and government and religious officials expressed their approval and praise for Tostan’s work in communities. The event was a lot of fun and involved lots of music and dancing. The village also had a shirt tailor-made for me that was given to me at the end of the ceremony, very kind!

The Meeting in Kantele Kunda

Dancing in Kantele Kunda

The women’s leader in Kantele Kunda presenting me with the shirt

An issue that is of particular interest to me is local language literacy here in West Africa. Tostan’s three-year program includes sessions on reading and writing in local languages, something that many people assume is not possible, as they are taught that only English or French are written. At the event in Kantele Kunda, one of the testimonies was from a young girl named Madalla who, in front of the hundreds gathered, explained, using a chalkboard, the process of sentence formation (consonants and vowels join together to form syllables, which join together to form words, which join together to form phrases and sentences). All this she did in her own Mandinka, something she could not do months ago before Tostan began its sessions in literacy. It was such a cool thing to see!

Madalla’s Testimony

The wives of two coworkers recently gave birth to two healthy children. As is customary, eight days after their births, naming ceremonies take place at the family home. Lots of food, griots’ songs, and sitting. The children, a boy and a girl, are both so tiny! I was so scared to hold them!

At my coworker’s daughter’s naming ceremony

There are also some visitors in town this week, and, while there is actually nothing to do in Basse beyond sitting, sweating, and chatting, we did decide to rent a river canoe down the riverside and to take a ride along the river. It reminded me of the horror movie “Anaconda”, a movie I still cringe thinking about … but it was nice to see the birds and other wildlife along the way. There are giant snakes, hippos, and crocodiles in the river as well, but we did not see any, thankfully …

On the River Gambia

Me with Boubakar, our driver

Well, I think that’s a long enough update for now! I am heading up to Dakar in Senegal on Thursday for a meeting for work. I will be there for about a week before heading back down to Basse. I am absolutely dreading the ride, but it will be so nice to be in a big city again and to see friends that live there!

Until next time!

Kaay Ndèkki!

Most people at the office in Senegal, where I worked from June until January, would arrive in the morning, work for an hour or so, and then leave to grab a breakfast sandwich from one of the two women who ran stalls nearby. Petits pois, a pea paste (very good with mustard!), and ñebee, a bean spread, were the two most common options. (I had originally been a militant supporter of petits pois, but, when I moved to Basse, where peas are unavailable, I was reluctantly converted to ñebee…) It was customary, then, whenever one of my coworkers were about to go buy the sandwich or, once returned with it, take the first bite to say “Kaay ndèkki”. Wolof for “come eat breakfast [with me]”, it is just another example of teranga, or hospitality, for which Senegambians are renowned.

Food is very central to this code of hospitality. At lunch the other day, the moment I put my spoon down, our cook, who does not speak much English, says to me, “Samba, please—I beg you—eat.” There was one woman in the office in Senegal, Seynabou, who always made me laugh: If anyone, no matter how much food they had or had not eaten, went to get up to leave the bowl would immediately go, “Doo lèkk?!”, meaning “You’re not eating?” as in “what’s wrong?”. Being a good host and making sure one’s guests are well fed is of the utmost importance. There is literally always space at the bowl for one more person. Usually, when someone truly is not hungry and comes across a group about to eat, especially if it is a mealtime, this person will grab a spoon, take one bite, and then say thank you and get on with his business.

When I first arrived in Basse, on my second or third day, as I arrived home from work, I greeted the family whose compound I live on and exchanged other pleasantries. I had some things to buy in the market and wanted to do so before the sun went down so I ran inside my house, put my bag down, and got changed. As I was leaving, one of women on my compound emerged from her house with a bowl of food and said “Here, lunch for you.” Without thinking about where I was and focusing on my market trip (it had taken a bit to talk myself into going to the market alone), I politely said I had just eaten (which was true) and was about to go to the market. Disappointed, the woman returned to her house.

A couple days later at our office, a coworker, Khady, who lives on my compound and who represents the Government’s Woman’s Bureau at Tostan, informed me that the family had asked her if I was unhappy with the compound, my house, or them … all because I declined their lunch! Needless to say I was shocked, yet not too surprised. I tried explaining to Khady the situation, and, while she understood things operate differently in America, she said I should still take the food and save it for later. I told Khady to clear the air with the family, which she did, and, the next time I was offered dinner, I readily accepted and made sure to rave about it to the family.

There are a few people in my office who I do not speak Wolof with, and, since my Mandinka is weak at best, and my Fula, non-existent, I speak with them in English. As I was walking out of our office last week, I walked by a coworker and said “I’m gonna get breakfast”, which I thought sufficiently implied “You can come too, if you want” … WRONG. My American teranga and I were the butt of endless jokes that afternoon at lunch.

Now, here’s my problem with all this “Kaay ndèkki” business—this is also the reason why, I am told, I’ll never be Senegambian: I don’t actually believe, despite what everyone says, that anyone actually expects someone to accept the offer to come and eat breakfast. People will say it if you walk in on them with one bite left, as if anyone in his right mind, would reply, “Yes, rip me a piece of that sandwich stub and let’s have it!” Now, I do fully believe that, if the request were accepted, that the first person would, without a moment’s thought, readily share a part of the food.

Now, here’s, I’m also told, what makes me American: Some mornings, when I am particularly hungry, I just want to enjoy my bean sandwich, my entire bean sandwich. I am not overly interested in the possibility of sharing it with anyone, nor am I interested in buying someone else a whole other sandwich of his own. They are welcome to come with me and buy their own, or even give me money to buy one for them. On these mornings, I don’t usually throw out a careless kaay ndèkki because I know I do not mean it and don’t particularly like the social obligation. Never one to skip a beat, one coworker of mine, whose company I really enjoy and who has also traveled extensively abroad, loves to rag on me on these mornings, thus leading to another back-and-forth on the differences between Americans and Gambians.

Kidding aside, the teranga here is really a hallmark of Senegambian culture. My coworkers and friends I’ve met in town are always insisting I eat more food and that I come to their homes for dinner. They are all convinced I am lonely because I live alone and invite me to spend time with their families. On weekends, they call to check in on me, and, if any of us are away with work, they call to see how I am getting along. The funniest thing happened one Saturday in February, when I was going to visit a few villages with a colleague to conduct interviews for a report. It was my first field mission in The Gambia, so all the staff showed up at the office to see me off and wish me luck—It felt like my first day of school! These people have been great coworkers and company the past couple months and I am thankful for their support and kindness!

What Language Did You Breastfeed In?

Whenever possible, I prefer not to be that person who doesn’t put effort into learning the language of the places I visit, especially those where I know I’ll be spending a prolonged period of time. This was never a problem while I worked in Senegal, as I had studied both French and Wolof during college. What I found interesting in Senegal, though, was that for both me and the vast majority of my coworkers, French was not our first language. Yes, we were all able to communicate effectively in the language, but, if one of my coworkers stubbed her toe while conversing in French, she’d utter something in Wolof just as quickly as I’d swear under my breath in English.

Here in The Gambia, the situation is a little different. When I first arrived in January, I did not want to be seen as “the toubab who only spoke English”. Since English is my own language, this felt even more ignorant and lazy on my end. So, when I showed up at the office, I began a lot of relationships with my coworkers in Wolof, despite Mandinka’s being the most widely spoken here. Many of them have a strong grasp of Wolof, since it is very popular downriver in Kombo. With those who don’t speak Wolof, I opted for English; and, for those who speak neither, such as our guard, I still, to this day, engage in a weird jumble of Wol-Mandi-nglish that seems to get the job done!

Fun fact: The verb nàmp, in Wolof, means “to breastfeed”. It is also used in expressions such as “Nàmp naa angale”, which literally means “I breastfed English”, but is translated as “English is my native language” as in, “I’ve been speaking English since I was breastfed”.

Unlike in Senegal, here in The Gambia, I am on an uneven playing field with my coworkers when we work together in English. I think, process information, and communicate with almost all of my friends and family in English, and American English at that. Growing up, my coworkers would use English solely in the classroom, not at home, or the market, or with friends. In almost every circumstance they encounter, outside of reading signage and publications, they use one of the many local languages spoken in The Gambia. I often take for granted colloquialisms and other things inferred in my own English, so we often run into situations where I am met with a blank stare by my coworkers. A lot of this is tied to cultural implications, accent, and the speeds at which we speak, I’m sure. (Anyone who knows me—my parents especially!—know that sometimes I think way more quickly than I can speak!)

This being said, I have noticed I have tweaked the way I speak English while I work. I know this because these changes have crept in when I am emailing or speaking with friends or family. (I recently asked a friend “How’s it” (“What’s up” here in The Gambia) and her response was “How is what?”) I usually avoid multiple contractions, such as “I’d’ve”, and really try to make sure my words come out separate from one another. It’s amazing how many words we run together into one sound when we speak quickly with each other. “Each other”, as I just typed, is rarely spoken as two distinct words with a pause in between, except for emphasis, and usually is said as “eachather”.

American colloquialisms are also tricky: I told a coworker recently that we needed to “touch base” on a project evaluation. Did you know touch base comes from baseball lingo? This expression is about as foreign as a baseball diamond is here in The Gambia! As a joke, I sometimes call out how bizarre some “Gambianisms” sound to me. “I am going to toilet to urinate” sounds about as odd to me as my saying “I need to go to the bathroom” (which comes out as “I needa go t’tha bathroom”) sounds to a Gambian.

“But, Samba, you aren’t taking bath there!” Yes, I know, but it’s just what we call the room the toilet’s in …


The National Coordination for Tostan The Gambia is located in Basse Santa Su, where I live and work. Basse is the capital of the Upper River Region (URR) and is the farthest region from the Atlantic Coast. All of the communities Tostan works with are located in the URR, so having our office upriver makes sense for project purposes. Tostan The Gambia also operates out of a finance and outreach office down the coast in Kololi. This is where I stayed when I visited The Gambia last October.

Map of The Gambia with Basse on the far right and Banjul near the coast

Kololi, along with a couple other small towns and cities, makes up an area called “Kombo” or “Kombos”. These towns are located in the West Coast Division, which is further divided into nice districts, four of which bear the name “Kombo”. The biggest city in Kombos is called Serekunda. Banjul, the capital of The Gambia, is located on an island in the mouth of the River Gambia not far from Kombo. Since the growth of Banjul is limited to the size of the island, a lot of spill-over has occurred into Kombo, into Serekunda, The Gambia’s largest city, specifically. Each town/city in Kombo is linked by small highways along which taxis and vans run.

The road from Serekunda in Kololi

Kombo is also the hub for tourists in The Gambia, a country that relies heavily on this industry. Every year, hundreds of tourists, mainly from the UK, but also from the Netherlands, Germany, and other European countries, descend upon the “Smiling Coast of Africa” for their vacations. Because of this, there many rental apartments and restaurants in the area. I am not quite sure how to feel about the tourism industry here, especially the “Bumster” phenomenon, but, no matter what I think, the industry flourishes!

I have been in Basse for almost three straight months, and, after the most recent 20+ day blackout, was looking for a break. Needing also to settle some reimbursements and other volunteer-related matters, I decided it would be good to travel down to Kombo to work from our office there for a few days. So, last Friday, I left my house at 5:30 in the morning and boarded a gely-gely bus. Refusing to cross the River Gambia more times than I absolutely have to, I took the South Road gely. We left around 6:20 when the car was half-full and stopped to pick up people along the road. Because of the many, many, many police checkpoints we had to cross along the road, we did not get to Kombo until about 2 in the afternoon. 

The Tostan Office in Kololi

Just to put it in perspective: The Gambia is roughly 11.3 thousand km2. Massachusetts, where I’m from, is 10.5 thousand km, so this entire country is roughly the size of Massachusetts, one of the smallest states in the US.

Kombo was amazing! During the weekend, which I dubbed my “Kombocation”, I did nothing but lay on the beach and eat good food. The difference between conditions down in Kombo and back upriver in Basse is frankly quite startling. Temperature-wise alone, I felt as if I were on a different continent. It was so nice out, especially with the ocean breeze, a far, far cry from dead heat for which Basse is infamous! Our office there is also very nice, not to mention air conditioned!

I enjoyed getting to know the area better and feel that I now have a much better grasp on locations and the public mini-van system. Dilapidated vans and nicer shared taxis, called Seven-Seven’s, because they cost 7 dalasi, run along predetermined routes throughout Kombo. You get on and “drop” wherever you want along the route by banging on the side of the car. My favorite area by far is called Traffic Light, since it was the site of the first traffic light in The Gambia. The light was not working, however, when I was last there …

My time in Kombo also included a morning foray in Banjul, the capital. My uncle was kind enough to send me a package, and, since it had been about 5 weeks since it was sent, I figured it could possibly have arrived. I grabbed a van to Tippa Garage before Serekunda on Wednesday morning. From there, I waited for a gely bus to fill up and then we crawled through the dirt alleys of Serekunda until we reached a road and traveled to Banjul. The capital is very, very small and easily navigable. After walking around a bit, I found the post office, most of which was open-air. I was pleasantly surprised to find a package slip in my name at our mailbox. I handed the package slip to the “Parcels Manager” and … three hours later … after much arguing and frustration was told, “I cannot find it. Looking has tired me, come back next week sometime.” I am afraid someone simply took my package and I will never be seeing it, as has happened to a few of my friends … Gotta love the customer service at Gampost!

One of the larger streets in Banjul

But alas, all good things must come to an end. We have an intervillage meeting this weekend, so I had to head back up to Basse. I left Kololi at 6 in the morning and did not reach Basse until almost 4:30 in the afternoon. The ride could be so much quicker if there weren’t over 20 police and military checkpoints on the road back upriver.

So, I am back in Basse and about to cross the river for the intervillage meeting on the North Bank. It’s a little cloud today, which is nice, yesterday it was over 115 degrees when I arrived!

Stay cool,